Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Trip to NYC

Last week I got to go to New York with a friend. We went for the express purpose of seeing the Kandinsky retrospective at the Guggenheim and the O’Keeffe abstracts at the Whitney. We also visited the Museum of Biblical Arts (MOBIA) without knowing what might be there. What a great confluence of paintings!

Wassily Kandinsky, Accompanied Contrast

Like most people, I suppose, I have had to work at understanding non-objective art – art with no immediate reference to natural objects – because it seemed to be without content, without a story to tell. Abstract art – the altering of recognizable images – is easier. But when I first saw reproductions of Kandinsky’s paintings, I just smiled. They made me happy. He pulled me in. So it was at the Guggenheim. I smiled all the way up the long spiral ramp as Kandinsky moved from abstraction to non-objectivism and developed his skill in making art that reflected his emotions and spirituality. Kandinsky made religious art. And being surrounded by nearly 100 of his paintings powerfully communicated to me both his spirit and His Spirit to mine.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Grey Blue and Black, Pink Circle

On to O’Keeffe. She was playing around with similar ideas in her art as Kandinsky, at about the same time. Her abstract and non-objective work uses curves and has a sensuous, soft, integrated look, whereas his are full of triangles and brightly colored blotches that seem almost antagonistic to each other. But they both were playing with color and form as expressions of their inner lives.

Tobi Kahn, Svirh

The work of Tobi Kahn was on exhibit at MOBIA. While not (yet) in the league of Kandinsky and O’Keeffe as a painter, still I saw more of the same – an exploration of the spiritual hidden in the material. MOBIA was a friendlier environment – no crowds to peer around, a smaller room, a place to sit and gaze. There I could imagine Kahn’s work surrounding me in a church (it was actually made for a synagogue) and living with it week in, week out, like those stained glass windows from my childhood.

These exhibits were all, to me, an “aroma of Christ,” even a feast. The art and its artful placement created holy places, sanctuaries from the American "real world" that no place represents better than New York.

That's why I care so much about bringing the visual arts into the church.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Failed Collaboration

HopeArts has been marked by exhibits where visual artists were asked to collaborate with artists working in different disciplines, with nonartists, or with a text. One of the least successful collaborative exhibits was one where we asked artists to create a piece for a hurting person, family, or institution that served people. The idea was to encourage the receiver through a piece of visual art. We asked through our email list for suggested places that would appreciate donated art, and then provided artists with a list of those and other possibilities -- the battered women’s center, the state hospital for the indigent mentally ill, a veteran’s center, nursing homes. The artist was to exhibit the piece during Lent and give it away for Easter.

We received very few works for this exhibit, and none for any institution, except the artist who cleared out his studio to give an unsold work to “whoever we thought would like it.” What went wrong? Did the artists think it was a gloomy idea to make work for a sad place or person? Did they have no relationship to such a place or person, and therefore no personal incentive? Were they embarrassed to offer work because it wasn’t skilled enough or because it was unsolicited? My best art always has always been art I made for a particular person that I loved or on a subject that I cared deeply about. Am I different from most artists or was the idea not communicated well?

Does anyone out there have an insight?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Laity Lodge

Last weekend I attended a very special retreat at Laity Lodge for the third year. Stephen Purcell, formerly of a retreat center in Austria called Schloss Mittersill, is now the director. Each year he has brought together Christian artists from around the world for four days of discussion and artistry in the most hospitable setting I know. This year singer-songwriter David Wilcox and cellist Jozef Luptak were guest musicians, David Dark the speaker, and Melissa Hawkins performed a one-person play. And that was just the beginnning. Many attendees read, sang, and contributed to the impromptu art exhibit.

As entertaining and thought-provoking as all this is, it is only a backdrop for the community that springs up, two or three people at a time.

The first person I met there was Doug -- he sat next to me at dinner the first evening. Doug had lovely long silver hair, and asked me almost immediately, "What's the best thing your church ever did for artists?" He was very intent, and I desperately wanted to say the right thing. "Hiring David Taylor" was all I could think of. Not the answer he was looking for, I'm sure. Over the course of the retreat, I kept thinking about his question and sitting next to him now and then, to see if we could talk more. He was pretty quiet.

One afternoon I wandered into the main lodge and happened upon a group of 5 or 6 guys passing around a guitar, taking turns playing their own songs. The retreat’s guest musician David Wilcox was among them. In fact, I recognized most of them as professional musicians. And there sat Doug. I hung around for bit watching this spontaneous community of artists enjoying each other. When the guitar came to Doug, he took it, and we all cracked up at his great little ditty about sighting Elvis.

On the last day of the retreat, at a time set aside for sharing, this quiet, humble guy choked up while telling us how healing these few days had been. He revealed that although he was an integral part of his church's worship and taught in a church-sponsored performing arts center, no fellow Christian had ever invited him to play a single song of his own. He vowed to move his guitar from the closet to a stand in the living room and start playing, not just working, again.

I remembered that the best thing our church did for artists was to invite us to play our own songs.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Why art in church?

I was recently asked why I care so much about bringing arts into the church. The question took me by surprise.

Raised an Episcopalian, as a child I attended a beautiful tall stone church set in a plain of one-story brick and cinder-block buildings. I was entranced by the brilliant reds and blues of the stained glass windows. I walked and knelt on a plush red carpet to take communion out of a polished silver plate and gold-lined chalice. I learned to read music from my own white leather-bound hymnbook, and reveled in the huge sound of the pipe organ that could vibrate my very bones with a joyful noise. I knew by heart the Shakespearean language of God! How on earth could anyone not care about bringing arts into the earnest asceticism of the Bible church where I found myself as a newly reborn adult believer?

One of the first things I did when I decided to follow Christ was to take a Bible study class. The intense young pastor of my small congregation of former hippies taught us well, and the final assignment was to write a paper. I dove in, wrote passionately, and then did something that to me seemed so right – I drew a picture for the cover of my paper. It was not a terribly skillful or original drawing, but also not at all morally challenging. During the last lesson everyone read their papers. My drawing garnered puzzlement from my pastor. He obviously did not understand why I would do such a thing and also seemed to be trying to figure out if he needed to admonish me. I don’t remember him saying anything negative, but was he worrying for my soul over a drawing?

As a new believer, I also looked for books about contemporary Christians and art. Back in 1979, there weren’t many. The only ones I found were Franky Shaeffer’s Addiction to Mediocrity, which was pretty discouraging, and a little gem by Elizabeth O’Connor, Eighth Day of Creation. O’Connor’s book is more about creativity in the context of community than about art or artists, but it kept a hope alive in me that the stained glass and hymns of my childhood had birthed.

I understand the historical forces in Luther’s and Calvin’s time that rejected a beauty corrupted. I too rejected the beautiful church that did not help my family grieve a divorce and later our mother’s death. I too found God again only through a stripped-bare gospel. But I was never meant to remain naked. God takes away so as to restore.

So I believe it is time for the Church to put on the garments of praise in a new way. No doubt whatever we do will get corrupted again, historically speaking. But now is a time for creativity and imagination and beauty to be restored.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Practices for the Christian Writer

On the question of being a Christian writer, Jane talked about ways of thinking. I want to talk about ways of doing.

(The usual qualifications apply to these ways of doing. They are suggestions, not rules. There are no doubt other ways. But these are ways I have found enjoyable and fruitful.)

Jane talked about the compartmentalizing of our lives. We all do it. Jane talked about putting God in a box, but we also separate parts of ourselves from each other. We wall off our inner and outer selves from each other. This kind of compartmentalizing inhibits truthfulness, with ourselves and with others and in our art.

I wish to suggest three ways I have found, as a writer, to bring my inner life and my outer life together; hence increase my honesty. These ways are journaling, lectio divina, and community.


“If you want to work on your art, work on your life.”
Anton Chekhov, physician & writer

Some people assume that all writers keep a personal journal, and probably most do, at least sometimes. Why is it important? Journals are unplanned, disorganized, of the moment. They can record all aspects of the inner life – moods, prayers, ideas, states of relationships, passions, and above all, secrets. A journal is the one place you need not wear any mask and you can hurt no one’s feelings. Here you can and must write your truth, however temporary and subjective, however hurtful, however heretical. A private journal can keep you honest.

Journaling is also valuable because it reveals your patterns. One of the best discoveries I made from writing the “morning pages” recommended in The Artist’s Way was the pattern of my whining. When I realized I was complaining about the same things over and over, I knew how to pray. A private journal can keep you humble.

Lectio Divina

“Lectio divina is a pilgrimage of words towards the Mystery of the Word.”
Bernardo Olivera, Trappist abbot

Lectio divina is an ancient technique for reading scripture. Its structure consists of four steps: reading and rereading a short scripture, meditating or chewing on it, praying about what the meditation brings up, and contemplating or resting in God’s presence without words. Once you try lectio divina, you will realize that it is not a linear, step-by-step process but a weaving together of all four steps.

Writers create and discover meaning by writing, so writing through these steps rather than merely thinking them (as is the usual method) can be very much more satisfying. Like journaling, lectio divina is a private pursuit.

Here are a few ways to write within this practice. You will no doubt come up with others.

· Rewrite the scripture in your own words.

· Write the story from the point of view of one of the characters in it.

· Rewrite it as a poem or a satire or a children’s story or a mystery, and so on.

· Imagine and write a conversation or an interview with one of the characters.

Scriptures to start with: Mark 10:46-52 or any story of Jesus interacting with people; Psalm 23 or any psalm you love; any scripture you are drawn to understand better.


“Listening is an ethical task.”
Daniel Taylor, professor & writer

It’s easy enough to say that we need community; it is harder to find and create a community that both challenges and nurtures. This kind of community offers blessings we can’t find in solitude: A place to tell our stories and listen to those of others. A place to work out those insights God gives through journaling, lectio divina, and other writing we do. A place to practice merging the inner and outer lives.

Writers are natural community-formers, even if they are introverts. How is that? Writers love words and stories. Words and stories are powerful to heal (or destroy), but they have no power outside of a speaker and a listener. So even the most reclusive writer is drawn to find someone to share her stories with or there is no use telling them. In fact, the give and take of sharing true stories has a power to bind that is the essence of community.

Communities can form around common interests, so writers join or create book discussion groups, critique groups, and Bible study groups; however, a group is not inevitably a community. Only when the structure of the meetings allows time for telling and listening to personal stories, as well as the group’s stated purpose, will community arise.

Journaling and lectio divina are especially rewarding ways for us as writers to discover our own stories and God’s stories. These practices then lay the groundwork for participating in communities where we listen to and speak ancient and new stories that bind and heal. Healing of a cut or a broken bone involves the closing up of two separate parts into one whole seamless piece. Healing of the soul works the same way. We clean out the wounds as we practice becoming truthful, humble, and compassionate, and God mends them.

Teaching Writing, part 2

One thing teachers know is to plan more than you can actually accomplish for a class, just in case the first activities flop. I knew we might not get to my plan to print out and bind a book, and we didn't. But for such great reasons. On day one, Jane's 15-minute presentation about thinking like a Christian writer turned into a 45-minute discussion that we finally just stopped so we could get back to writing. On day two, the group critiques paid off with great encouragement to the writers and each finished a story. They then got to read them aloud at lunch to the larger group of students in all three Creativity Circus workshops.

Another bit that fell away was my presentation on the second day. So I wrote it up to send to the students and will post it here as well.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Teaching Writing

I was asked to team-teach a writing class for Hope Chapel's Creativity Circus this summer. The idea is to stimulate, in two short sessions, lots of ideas for beginners who have stories to tell but no fomal training. It's interesting planning for it, as I have more teaching experience (in visual art) and the other person has more creative writing experience. We are starting with a series of prompts, which seem a lot like the studies I did in life drawing classes. We hope they will be good warm-ups and icebreakers before the students dig into stories of their own choosing.

I may be overreaching, but I want people to take home something concrete, since writing is so cerebral. I am trying to organize a way to print out their final stories and help them make a simple stapled book with a decorative cover. That involves creating a template and bringing a printer or finding a way to use one in one of the offices. It will only work for students who bring a laptop to the workshop. Stay tuned to find out the end of this story!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


I found the most wonderful website. I was researching the art of storytelling, hoping to get some help with telling Hope Chapel artists' stories, but I got much more. This site is not a how-to but an exploration of why storytelling is important. Ah me, ever the lover of a little history, a bit of philosophy, and a dollop of physics….

The subject of storytelling has been in the air around me for the past couple of months. A friend has been raving about Tell Me a Story by Daniel Taylor, so I've been noticing it in various conversations and thinking about it. I've even been craving some good fiction lately. Now, I discover that storytelling is the latest thing in business management, too, a "passport to success" so they say. I expect that passport will expire in a few years, but the discussion about storytelling connects to the arts movement in the church very organically.

One of the points the website writers make is that, particularly in the 20th century, the scientific method grew into a behemoth that overtook all other forms of knowing. Isn't that how "God is dead" got its power? Believers and nonbelievers alike have been setting up faith and science as enemies for a very long time. But what if the solution is not to keep fighting with more logic, more "proof" from digging into Middle Eastern tells or authenticating ancient documents? Or alternatively, to insist that faith needs no logic? Faith in medieval relics vs. carbon dating is not the only possible battleground; storytelling through art is another.

I read here that the way David beats Goliath is by breaking the rules of the game. Let's listen to one of our own stories! Maybe the church can "beat" the logic of skepticism not through more logic but through the power of compassion, empathy, fear, anger; the emotions that a good story can elicit while leading us out of our tired, culturally formed ways of thinking about ourselves, others, nature, and yes, even God.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Jurying vs. Editing

HopeArts writers have at last met and identified themselves! For the past 10-12 years, the visual and performing artists have been in the spotlight, while the naturally more invisible writers have worked, literally, behind the scenes. Jane Bryant put out a call and over 20 people responded, many of whom I had no idea were writers. The most exciting thing to me about this is the opportunity to serve the writers better than I and others served the visual artists.

We were groping in the dark when we started the visual arts ministry at Hope Chapel, and took our cues from the secular art world as to how to set things up. In many ways this decision served us well, but in one way it didn't. Jurying or not jurying was the stumbling block. Jurying is good and necessary, at least to some extent – a church with its gallery in the sanctuary must jury for content. But jurying for aesthetics is a much tougher choice. Who is qualified to judge beauty? How can you avoid letting one or a few persons' taste dictate what is hung? How do you encourage beginners if you reject less skilled work, but if you don't how do you encourage excellence?

Much of this angst could have been avoided if we had listened to the writing world instead of the art world. Writers expect to be edited. Visual artists do get critiques in school and often continue to ask for input from trusted cohorts, but when they answer a call for entries, they know their work will be accepted or rejected with no explanation. Writers, however, expect someone from the publishing house (or film studio or business client) to mark up their work, to suggest or demand changes. Of course, I doubt that writers who have proven their skill are edited much, if at all. But the point is that most writers, and most artists, need good critiques long after they are out of school. And this is where we at HopeArts can serve better than we have.

Editing is essentially collaboration with a teacher. Jurying is judging. Personally, I have had enough of judging. I want to teach.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Critiques are Good

I received my first critique on the artist's statement chapter last Monday. In my defense, I am used to writing technical manuals. Step-by-step instructions for measuring oil in a storage tank do not require encouraging words, humor, or metaphors, only precision and clarity.

So I learned that my best effort is indeed a first draft. I am very grateful for my little writers' community. They read carefully, gave a lot of time and thought to every sentence, and kindly but firmly identified habits of mind that my writing revealed. I could not have described those habits, but I recognized them right away; for example, many negative assumptions about artists and at the same time a fear of offending them. I recognize the finger-wagging nature of some of my wording, disguised (so I thought) in a humorous story. It turns out these stories come across as sarcasm, not humor. Duh.

After a short time in shock at how very much the chapter did not read as I wanted it to, I felt a great relief at knowing people who are perceptive enough to analyze how it went wrong and brave enough to tell me. I am a happy woman.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Quoting Scripture

I'm finishing up the first draft of the section about writing an artist's statement. A quick look online reveals plenty of information about the subject. So I asked myself, what do I have to say that is new? The answer, I remembered, is to focus on the question of how being a Christian involved with the arts is different.

One way the statements I have received over the years at Hope Chapel are different is that many artists quote Scripture. Maybe they would choose to do that no matter where they were exhibiting, or maybe they felt freer to because the venue was a church building. Either way, the quotes often seemed tacked on or forced. Sometimes the artists were using Scripture as a kind of shorthand for a thought. These statements were often very short. Other times the artists seemed to feel that their art and their words alone didn't push the point they wanted to make far enough. These statements were often long and preachy, even without the quote.

I think there are other misguided reasons for quoting Scripture, as well as good reasons. But the bottom line is that people generally like to read stories, not lectures and not undeveloped snippets. The artist's statement needs to be personal, like the art, and not merely borrow someone else's words to satisfy a gallery requirement. Even if the borrowed words are really great ones.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Interview with Denis Brown

I am working on art more than writing this week, so forgive my digression to point you an interview with one of the most original and passionate calligraphers I've ever met, Denis Brown. Denis had his struggles with the church, which resulted in some very powerful art. In the past few years, however, his work, while losing none of its power, has become less confrontational. His latest series, 1000 wishes, continues a technique I haven't seen anyone else use — etching text on glass sheets, then stacking the sheets in a frame on top of a color image. The photos of the works don't show the way the light interacts with the etched glass and how moving around the piece reveals new juxtapositions, but they're still worth seeing.

Friday, March 6, 2009

In Praise of Stubbornness

Talking with my writer friend Jane this morning and realizing that for the past year, three of us in our writing group were agonizing, whining, grunting out bits of our self-assigned projects, and suddenly in the new year we are all focused and steadily producing chapters. What happened? Happily, we have discovered our process included a long incubation.

So the word of the day is "persevere" — carry on stubbornly. To those who are in the fallow phase, don’t give up!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Behaving Ethically

I've been working on the chapter about how to write an artist's statement. I like writing about writing, I suppose because I like to teach. I lay out some rules, and then I start looking through the eight years of statements from past arts festivals for examples of the rules. I decide to find at least one poor example and one good example to illustrate each one. Neither is hard.

Now, however, I have a problem – what artist would give me permission to use their statement as an example of what not to do? I consider whether using the statements without telling the artist is illegal and unethical. Maybe not illegal, since copyright law allows for use of quotes for educational purposes. But definitely unethical. So how do I ask? I need to anticipate their feelings and see whether I can find ways to alleviate them.

What if I don’t use their names? That way, no one is embarrassed publicly. But then the artists whose statements are used as good examples also don’t get credit. Is that a problem? It might be for me. Can I use the names on the good examples and not the poor ones? Now it’s starting to feel sleazy.

What if I rewrite the statements so I don’t need permission? Use them as a basis for the point I want to make but change them enough that they are no longer the artist’s. I’m not sure I’m that good a writer. It’s like doing impressions – you have to be able to become invisible and take on someone else’s manner and appearance. If I miss the mark, the examples would be just more of me me me, and me alone is not helpful enough.

No, it seems I’m going to have to face up to people with my opinion about their writing if I use examples. Which reminds me that I feel responsible for not helping them improve their statements back then. I did provide a short how-to sheet along with the entry forms, but I did not mentor people well. I tried to give everyone what they needed without the discomfort of giving individuals what they needed. In truth, I could not have done all I did and added on mentoring every entrant, but we could have set things up differently. Food for thought.

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Our writers' group met — full house this time, with only one person unable to attend. We all had news to share about our lives and writing, and everyone was attentive and enthusiastic. What a blessing! They listened to my recent revelations and, without exception, positively vibrated with patience as Stephanie asked,  May we tell you what we think you should write first? I said yes, and all four of them burst out with "the How-To!" Happy with this confirmation, I am settled down to the work, finally untroubled by where to start each day.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Serial, anyone?

Okay, I've identified four different books I could write about HopeArts: a history, a how-to, a motivational text, and a collection of essays. I have no interest in writing motivational books, as such, so one down. I'd love to write the remaining three. In what order?

The how-to would be the easiest to finish because I have already written big chunks of it over the course of the last 10 years. And the rest is less, shall we say, taxing than the writing for the other two books. Practicality is my forte. 

I probably ought to work on the history first, though, because every day new information supplants old memories. Do I have enough resource material to pull it off? Hmmm. Plus I'd need to interview some Hopites and others in Austin who have been working on arts ministries in their churches. Could be very time-consuming.

Now if I "followed my heart" I'd go straight to the essays. And probably not finish the book for 10 years, if at all. I love thinking about the hard stuff, and I even love writing it, but I hate putting it out into the world because it's never completely as right as it needs to be. How does Eugene Petersen do it? Do it so well and meet deadlines, I mean. Has he thought of some mistake or had some new insight that gnaws at him when he sees a copy of The Message? He is rather known for his humility, so I'm sure that's a key to peace of mind, but how does one balance humility and the desire for excellence? Oh — what's that? I'm hearing the voices of therapy past, and rather than share them with the world, I think I'll leave this topic for now.

Friday, February 20, 2009


I have been struggling for the past six months with narrowing down the content for the book I am writing about the Hope Chapel arts ministry. You should see my Book folder — six outline and to-do files; Curio documents with six, seven, eight "idea spaces" for each of nine proposed chapters; a folder of Arts Council meeting minutes; plus assorted sidetrack files that seem important but don't fit anywhere specific yet.

So last night I attended the monthly meeting of the Writers' League of Texas, where the topic for panel discussion was "first drafts." Much good info about process (including a recommendation for April Kihlstrom's Book in a Week workshop). And a reiteration of the advice tht's been smacking me in the face for the past few months — it's all about the story! I first came across this notion in regard to nonfiction several years ago in Frederick Buechner's Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. Last night's tips about storyboarding even nonfiction works got me and my friend Jane talking about how to translate the fiction writer's method to a nonfiction book that I so want to be compelling.

Back to my Book folder with fresh eyes, I am rethinking genre — do I want to tell this story as an action-adventure or a fairy tale or a romantic comedy? How might my content fit into a three-act structure? Who are my characters, what do they struggle with, how have they grown at the end of the story?

And, of course, the other best advice, from panelist David Clambrone who has written both technical books (as I have) and fiction — start where your interest is, write that part first, and then see where it leads you. That hackneyed "follow your heart" thing again; my initial reaction is "I am already doing what I want to do. Talk to the hand." But I am hearing it anew today as a reminder to keep honing my interest further and further whenever I get bogged down. 

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Looking for the Lizard by Kate Van Dyke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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